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Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh by Allan Murray Architects

A Polite Response: Allan Murray Architects conforms to the demands of Edinburgh’s planners with the multi-faceted Hotel Missoni, says Penny Lewis. Photography by Keith Hunter 

Edinburgh, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that doubles as the capital city of Scotland, is hamstrung by its cultural heritage and under constant scrutiny from the world’s self-appointed cultural guardians. Part of Edinburgh’s glory is that the buildings of the Old Town appear to rise up from the rock, growing and shifting.

You can literally read the history of urban development and architectural style in its streets. Much of the city’s Victorian and 20th-century development appears to overlay its predecessors, rather than replace them. And the architects and masons of each successive layer have often claimed that their intervention is the most authentic expression of the essential character of the city. Some of the best new buildings produced in the past 20 years take the city’s slowly accumulated layers as a source of inspiration.

However, even Patrick Geddes, the father of ‘conservative surgery’, might be shocked to see how the conservation of Edinburgh’s fabric now trumps local democracy, and has given rise to a highly conservative architectural culture. Historic cities can provide the context for great new buildings, but for Edinburgh’s architects, conservation appears to have been an overbearing restraint for some time. If architects operate, as critic Robert Maxwell has suggested, within a dynamic framework that constantly incorporates both the past and the future, Edinburgh appears to have abandoned the dialectic.

The new Hotel Missoni, designed by Allan Murray Architects with Milanese brand and interior designer Matteo Thun and Partners, must be understood in this context. It is notoriously difficult to gain planning permission in Edinburgh, but practice director Allan Murray has a track record of this. He has a real skill for thinking about the city in three dimensions, combined with a grasp of what makes development viable. Over the last decade, Murray has picked up commissions for the St James’ Centre, Cowgate and Fountainbridge. However, he has also suffered at the hands of the city’s protracted planning process. His longstanding Caltongate masterplan went cold after developer Mountgrange entered administration.This blow followed several years of public consultation, an inquiry and criticism from UNESCO.

The 129-room Hotel Missoni sits on one of the Old Town’s most important sites – the corner of the Royal Mile between St Giles’ Cathedral and Edinburgh Castle. This is the point at which the Royal Mile narrows and extends upwards, climbing towards the castle’s esplanade. It’s an area of intense architectural character, heavily populated by tourists and purveyors of ‘tartan tat’. There is a two-storey fall across the site, giving rise to access points and public routes at a variety of levels.

The site was previously occupied by the Midlothian County Council office by RMJM. Back in the early 1960s, RMJM co-founder Robert Matthew criticised a Beaux Arts proposal for the plot and argued that the site deserved a building that was ‘truly representative of the 20th century’. He later won the commission, and the office was completed in 1970. But in 2007, everything above ground was demolished to make way for Hotel Missoni. While Allan Murray Architects put forward a fairly convincing case for why Matthew’s office was difficult to convert into a hotel, it’s also true that Edinburgh’s enthusiasm for its architectural heritage rarely extends to concrete structures built in the post-war period. Many have welcomed the fact that this new, polite, sandstone building has replaced Matthew’s more assertive ‘modernist monstrosity’.

Hotel Missoni provides frontages to three Edinburgh streets: the Lawnmarket, George IV Bridge and Victoria Street. The Lawnmarket is medieval, with some Victorian and Edwardian interventions. George IV Bridge is a broad street housing a mix of 19th and 20th-century institutional buildings, dominated at its far end by the 1999 Museum of Scotland extension by Benson + Forsyth. Victoria Street is a Victorian improvement street cut with a romantic sweep through the grain of the medieval town, linking the High Street and the Grassmarket. Murray’s approach to the site’s incredible context is essentially an eclectic one, responding to each elevation in turn. Each facade is designed to respond to its neighbours.

The Lawnmarket elevation takes its lead from the extruded character of its neighbours, and references the medieval tradition of timber cantilevers stepping out over the street. The George IV Bridge elevation is broken into three classical pavilions, and has a starkness and proportion of solid wall that echoes the inter-war National Library nearby, while the Victoria Street elevation reinstates the curve of the terrace, reinforcing the canyon-like quality of the street.

Hotel Missoni’s general massing is pragmatic. Rather than mimicking the existing roofscape – a collection of pitched roofs and steep gables – Murray takes wall heads and chimney stacks as his reference point, extending gables up beyond the line of the eaves to create flat roof terraces. It’s hard to criticise the logic of the external form – everything can be justified as being derived from historic forms or construction techniques.

The building conforms to contemporary planning and design conventions. It sits comfortably in relation to the character of the place, and the mass is broken down to reflect the organic development of the surrounding buildings. It has mixed uses at ground level, and the scheme reinstates some original public vennels into and through the site, and creates places for people to stop and rest. The only thing that makes it, as Matthew might say, of the 21st century, is that it looks like a framed building with stone cladding.

When Murray talks about the design process, it is clear that the approach adopted by Matthew in the 1960s (to create a singular contemporary building) was not an option. In passing, Murray suggests that Matthew fundamentally misread the character of the place, producing a monolithic block with deep horizontal bands of glazing – a move that undermined the essentially vertical character of the Royal Mile. However, looking at Hans Snoek’s black and white photographs of the office in Miles Glendinning’s Modern Architect: The Life and Times of Robert Matthew (RIBA Publishing, 2008), it’s hard to share Murray’s conviction. Much could be learned from the assertiveness of Matthew’s approach.

Similarly, there is a generosity in Matthew’s ground-floor plan which is lacking in the new building. At ground level, much of the hotel plot is given over to two restaurant franchises and a Bank of Scotland. No amount of zigzag fabric or quirky ceramics can make up for a lack of space and a serious public stair. The route from front door to room is not sufficiently different from the budget hotel experience to justify the description ‘luxury’.

Hotel Missoni’s weaknesses are compounded by the fact that the client (a joint venture between hotel developer Rezidor and fashion house Missoni) seems to have limited enthusiasm for the architectural issues thrown up by the commissioning of a hotel. Matteo Thun and Partners is given a much higher profile in the hotel’s marketing than the architect; all the bling and iconography is on the inside, while the external shell is conformist.

This is not an argument for the retention of the Matthew building, but for a more creative balance between context and programme. Matthew’s original building was unquestionably an office, but at Hotel Missoni the function of the building and its programme takes second place to the exterior envelope. The contemporary needs of the users and the consideration of what makes a spectacular hotel have not been given the same weight as the need to satisfy the planners and the conservation bodies.

Project Information:

Start on site: September 2006 for demolition and May 2007 for main works
Contract duration: 10 months for demolition and 24 months for main works
Gross internal floor area: 11,720m2
Form of contract: traditional contract for demolition and two-stage design and build for main works
Total cost: £29,780,000
Cost per m2: £2,540
Client: Mound Property Company
Architect: Allan Murray Architects
Structural engineer: SKM Anthony Hunt
M&E consultant: RPS Gregory
Quantity surveyor: Arcadis AYH
Planning supervisor: Kirk and Marsh
Main contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine
Annual CO2 emissions: Not supplied

Readers' comments (39)

  • It's an appallingly overscaled lump is the Missoni, seen in context, that's about the most flattering angle it could have been photographed from, above, the pictures below could be better, and the building is in the final ten for the Building Design Carbuncle Cup 2009.

    Not sure who the world's 'self-appointed cultural guardians' are. If that's supposed to be UNESCO, then I suggest that Penny Lewis does some investigation. The UK is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, the UK government puts forward nominations for World Heritage Site status, and we accept that as a nation we will protect the Outstanding Universal Value, authenticity and integrity of the site, as inscribed, for all of mankind. It's our choice to have World Heritage Sites.

    And yes, apart from that the historic areas of Edinburgh are covered by conservation area status and stuffed full of listed buildings and those do actually place constraints on what can be done. Those constraints are enshrined in Scottish planning law and policy, democratically adopted.

    But this building hasn't satisfied 'conservation bodies', despite the banal references to the past and the stone, conservation bodies who get blamed for much of which they are blameless. If only they did wield the power ascribed to them things might be rather better in Edinburgh, with architects other than Murray given the chance to show what they can do. UNESCO has suggested international competitions as a way forward, but too late for so many sites.

    The problem is with Murray, he's not good, but he's not so bad that things can be turned down. He gets the work because he gets things past planning (not hard in Edinburgh the planning committee is pretty poor).



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  • There was no inquiry for Caltongate. There should have been, but there wasn't.

    Planning was not terribly protracted, that's a piece of PR from Mountgrange.

    Few have welcomed the Missioni. That's untrue. It's not at all popular. But the previous building was unlisted, and the case was made ny Murray (conveniently) that it couldn't be converted. The same old developer guff, to gain demolition consent.

    Certainly, the 2009 report from the November 2008 UNESCO mission was critical of some aspects of Caltongate, in particular the demolition of listed buildings without any real justification and the blocking of important views, but the project was in the hands of the administrators before that was published.

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  • 'Hamstrung' by its cultural heritage? Isn't it precisely that 'cultural heritage' of wonderful historic architecture which makes Edinburgh the great city it is? Why consider this to be a bad thing? This should be seen as an inspiration for architects. Few seem able to rise to its challenge.

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  • Penny Lewis really has not a handle on this at all. Conservation has little to do with this building, as it is a new one, and as the plans were passed by local politicians, then how is this somehow against 'local democracy'? Is she unaware of how planning works then? Of course had they turned it down (on what grounds? Second rate architecture? Not a planning reason) then no doubt it would have been passed on appeal.

    Geddes would possibly be shocked, but not for the reasons mentioned. A pity that such an opportunity has been squandered on what is basically a large commercial block with a few nods to an ill-digested idea of 'tradition' bolted on.

    Blame the architect, blame the client, and blame the council's desire to have built ever more hotels for tourists, no matter how damaging those hotels are to that which they go to Edinburgh to see.

    Missoni is there to cynically maximise the site and as such presumably it succeeds in cramming a large number of rooms into the space available, hence the height, with other commercial development to make it pay and pretend that at street level there is some life.

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  • And so the SOOT busybodies get their say first - anonymously of course.

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  • The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, with the assistance of Miles Glendinning, called for the retention of Robert Matthew's building. It was Geddesian in planning and it's horizontality and Portland Stone an exciting contrast to the prevailing character of the Royal Mile/George IV Bridge. Sadly, the demolition had been previously guaranteed by an elected member of the Council when the MSPs moved out. The AHSS and a group of conservation specialists proposed Listing Argyle House by Michael Laird but this was rejected by Historic Scotland and is now subject to a development brief that does not consider retention. The city should be a vairied accretion of architecture and yet we are currently erasing work of the 60s and 70s to its detriment.

    The AHSS is probably percieved as part of the "conservation lobby" yet it welcomed Gareth Hoskins proposals for St Andrew Square, a project that obtained planning with relative ease despite the introduction of materials alien to the New Town. Can the anodyne nature of some recent development really be blamed on amenity groups?

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  • Really 'Gareth Pugh'? Who are you then? What have you to say about the building and the issues raised? Not a thing. Has this anything to do with SOOT? It's not Caltongate is it?

    And no, the nature of recent developments in Edinburgh cannot be blamed on amenity groups., or conservation. Were they listened to, there might be far better architecture than this, and decent buildings from the recent past retained.

    Much of the blame lies with those who accept second rate new architecture and believe it to be good. Gareth Pugh perhaps?

    Further Missoni images can be viewed at

    http://www.edinburgharchitecture.co.uk/hotel_missoni.htm

    and the now demolished Matthew building at

    http://www.edinburgharchitecture.co.uk/jpgs/george_4th_awaug06_142.jpg

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  • That's not SOOT it's the one woman machine Auld Reekie/Buttress/BC obsessed with WHS on a vendetta against some Edinburgh architects.

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  • That wouldn't be the Gareth Pugh of Allan Murray Architects, would it?

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  • Anon 11.35 Think tank! From skyscraper city! Posts non-stop adoring pictures of Allan Murray buildings. Do you work for Murray?

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  • Yes the demolished office building was interesting, although it had a very pokey interior and low ceilings - not sure hat Penny was going on about there. The one thing the old building didn't do very well was address the street level. It was a blank wall with one small entrance on George IV Bridge. The new building (which incidentally is no bigger than the demolished one) addresses this problem I think very successfully. There are the three 'loggia' spaces - one on the Lawnmarket, the Missoni entrance and the new entrance to Victoria Terrace which create some space at pavement level, and the new restaurants and the bank (when it is fitted out) will create activity. The little seats at the bottom of the shop windows are particularly nice for a sit. Surely an improvement.

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  • I havn't seen pictures of the previous which was on this site and im not a big fan of the non stone work external branding sign on the building, but I do think there is something slightly Mackingtosh about parts of it which I like, especially (i think its) the The Lawnmarket facade. I also think its very hard to tell from these photos the true impact on the street or surrounding buildings.

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  • Penny's right that Reception and the bar are quite a disappointment, there's no sense of arrival that you expect in an upmarket hotel, infact interior architecture is wholly absent.

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  • Well, Mr Pugh would say that, wouldn't he? No, it's not an improvement, in the opinion of a number of people. However, it will probably be gone in another 20 years. As with the proposed SoCo development, and the Cube, it is too high, trying to squeeze another storey in when it would have been better not to, and lacking in the refinement which its situation demanded. Largely irrelevant add-on timber decoration does not great architecture make. Little seats 'for a sit'? Trivia, when the great mass of stone looms in such an uncompromising manner.

    There are pictures available on the internet of the previous building.

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  • Loggias and seats? Drunks and beggars' paradise! Possibly Gareth Pugh doesn't venture into central Edinburgh at night. Or during the day either. How long before the tins and the vomit decorate these?

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  • Are you suggesting all our architecture should be designed around preventing anti-social behaviour? Get real.

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  • Yes, the Embra neds and their canine friends will love it, and all the lurking places so thoughtfully provided, which may not enhance the Missoni brand, but may add the local colour and character sadly missing from the building as it is.



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  • The AHSS also welcomed the Richard Murphy Morrison Street Tower. It at times backs losers.

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  • That building is absolutely fine. What is just around the corner on The Royal Mile isn't! Buildings and pavements covered in tartan tat! It's shocking! Likewise the beautiful Richard Murphy building at 112 Canongate which is covered in tartan tat!

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  • Fine? Sheeesh! What planet are you on?

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